Marriage is sometimes hard. Anyone who says differently either hasn’t been married, or is selling you something. It doesn’t take long before the shiny dreams of wedded bliss start to fade away, and the reality of married life begins to settle in: Two people from very different families are now merging their diverse backgrounds and histories into one, and conflict is a very normal and healthy part of this process. Like anything worth building, a strong, enjoyable marriage takes hard work. What I want to remind parents of today is that marriage turmoil doesn’t stay contained between mom and dad. Each member of a family is connected to every other member. That means your conflict with your spouse almost always spills over into the relationship with your teen. Now, I don’t say this to lay a guilt trip on parents who are struggling in their marriage. Nor is this article designed to settle spousal disagreements. But some of the problems your teen is facing now could be the byproduct of the tension, anxiety and worry he feels as mom and dad work on their own relationship. I’d like to show you how to handle marriage conflict well, so that in turn, your teen will learn how to handle turmoil in a healthy way.
When mom and dad start to drift apart, the family as a whole starts to fragment. As relationships in the house continue to shift and separate, pretty soon everyone becomes their own private island. It’s like having disconnected strangers living under one roof. No one is working as a team. No one is manning the walls and looking out for the family, and so feelings, events, and important moments begin to slip through the cracks.
I asked one young girl in our counseling program how she was doing. It was a simple question and I expected a simple “doing okay” answer. Instead, the young lady proceeded to tell me everything about herself; everything she ever did, everything she ever accomplished, everywhere she had ever traveled and every talent she had. She reported how she could play the guitar, the cello, the violin, the piano, the harp, the drums, the trumpet, the bass guitar, the flute, the clarinet, and the tuba. She talked about how she is a swimmer, a gymnast, a dancer, an equestrian, a pianist, and a volleyball queen. She told me what she wanted to be, and what she did not want to be. She told me all her hopes and dreams, and all her disappointments and failures in one breathless dissertation. She wanted me to know she is worth something and she pled her case based on her accomplishments. When she took a breath, I finally got a chance to wedge in a better question that might open a real dialogue. Her demeanor completely changed when I asked, “What’s the most difficult thing that has happened in your life?” Her chattering stopped, her eyes welled up with tears, and she replied, “When my dad left, I felt all alone.”
Suddenly, there was silence. I stood looking at her for a few seconds and instead of trying to come up with the right words to say, I just gave her a hug. Finally, a real connection was made.
Don’t allow emotional isolation to leave your teen feeling all alone.
Divorce or separation can definitely lead teens to feel physically isolated. But this can happen when parents are together, as well. Sometimes it takes the form of dad spending nights and weekends at the office, and away from the family. Or maybe it looks like mom devoting her free moments to various boards, committees and volunteer work, and never being home. We know the devastation divorce can bring on kids. But being married and always apart can do similar damage.
Just like kids who feel emotionally isolated, kids who feel physically isolated from mom and dad will look elsewhere to fill the void in their lives. They may choose to spend little or no time at home. They’ll be prone to seek a sense of “family” elsewhere, usually with a peer group where it is easy to find acceptance and form attachments. Or your teen may try to imitate mom and dad by throwing themselves into school, sports, video games, friends, or social media in order to experience the feelings only quality time with parents can offer.
Putting It In Perspective
Now let’s look at some positive ways we can help and protect our teens even if our marriage is stormy.
First, understand that your child is affected by your relationship with your spouse. Even fights behind closed doors aren’t hidden from kids. They can feel the tension and sense the conflict. If you and your spouse aren’t working together and your marriage isn’t strong, your teen will know it—and may try to use it against you. I’ve had parents say to me, “We just can’t see eye to eye.” My reply is, “Then get counseling and fix it.” Don’t let pride keep you from doing what your kid—and your marriage—needs. You can’t get your marriage, or your family, where you want it to go without guidance and direction from others, and if you don’t stop and ask for help, chances are you’ll end up somewhere you never wanted to be. No one sets out to create a broken family, but without getting counsel and advice from others, you’re likely to create one anyways. Even Jan and I had to get counseling for a period of time, and it helped a lot.
If your teen sees his parents working through their problems with a counselor, it will give him hope that his situation can be resolved as well. Don’t be afraid to share some of those struggles with him in the context of working toward a solution. Saying “We’re going to remain strong even when don’t agree” gives the child license to feel loved and accepted even in the midst of family conflict.
Second, you’re not in the seventh-grade anymore, so don’t blame your spouse in front of the kids. Your teen doesn’t need to hear why his mom can be hard to live with, or why her dad is inconsiderate. If you need someone to talk to about the problems in your marriage, find a pastor, counselor or friend. Do not air your dirty laundry in front of your child.
Remember, spending time with your teen confers on them a sense of value that no one else can give. Even in the midst of working on your marriage, make sure to spend regular time with your teen. If you have the freedom to do it, take them to lunch, grab a snack after school, attend all games or school events, and communicate online. Send regular text messages to say “Hi,” or, “I love you.” Make sure your teen knows your desire to be involved in his or her life, or they’ll seek validation from someone else, and that can lead to bigger problems than you ever want to have with your teen.
Lastly, Mom and Dad need to protect their marriage above all else. In fact, it is more important than just about anything parents can do to help their kids. Parents who have kids approaching the teen years would be wise to prepare ahead of time by ensuring that they are on the same page, and that the foundations of their marriage are strong. Start taking steps today to guard your marriage from the problems that can arise during the teen years. And for parents who are experiencing difficulties with a teen right now, turn your attention toward your marriage first, to begin the healing process for the whole family, including your teen.
I have grown to think highly of couples who, knowing that they’re headed for a split, stay together until their teen graduates from high school or college. Many will argue against this statement, but you will never convince me that a child is better off with parents living in separate homes, and this is especially true with teenagers. Mom and dad may feel as if they are better off splitting up, but that’s not always the case when adolescent children are involved. Teenage sons need their moms. Teenage daughters need their dads. Sons need their dads. Daughters need their moms.
Divorce is a harsh reality of our culture. While it is not my place to condemn a divorced person for being so, I encourage anyone considering divorce to think long and hard about the long-term consequences before engaging in the process — especially if their kids are in their adolescent years. If you can’t avoid a split-up, or if you’re already divorced, then it’s good to practice “damage control” in the life of your teen. They still need a sense of security. They need to know they are loved, and that you enjoy spending quality time with them. They need to know that your divorce is not their fault, and that it’s ok for them to love both parents equally.
No marriage is perfect. But the struggles between a husband and wife don’t have to spill over into the lives our teens. Once we realize how interconnected our family relationships are, we can take steps to assure our teens that they are loved, accepted, and valued. Remember – by working on your marriage, you’re also building up your teens.